There is only one course for an honourable man, caught up in a brutal regime, according to the victor, after a war has been won, and that is vamoose, get out of town, become a refugee. Dr Wilheim Furtwangler (Stellan Skarsgard) stayed. "It is my country. Why should I leave?"

In 1945, ex-insurance salesman Major ("Call me Steve") Arnold (Harvey Keitel) is given orders by a reactionary US general (R Lee Ermey) to "get" Furtwangler, find him guilty of collaboration with the Nazis and put him on trial. This proves not such a simple task, as Furtwangler, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, was highly respected, in fact considered by many to be the best in the world. Also, it is known that he never became a member of the party and actively helped Jewish musicians to escape.

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Ronald Harwood has adapted his stage play for the screen. It is a claustrophobic piece of theatre, a clash of cultures, an interrogation in which the very nature of art and politics is dissected and exposed, a talkie rather than an action replay, and, being Harwood, an erudite one, despite Arnold's brutalising insensitivity.

While admiring the motives for resurrecting the Furtwangler case, it is difficult to feel sympathy. What you are watching is a man, possibly a great one, being humiliated by a vulgar pygmy who happens to have the authority of the occupying force. Arnold is a bully and Furtwangler an aesthete. "I blame you for not getting hanged," screams the American. "I blame you for your cowardice."

Furtwangler is constantly kept waiting. "Don't offer him coffee," Arnold tells his young Germany secretary (Birgit Minichmayr). "Don't even greet him." His crime, it appears, is to have played for Hitler before his 53rd birthday and on the day preceeding the Nuremberg Rally. There is much debate about whether he gave the Nazi salute. It comes down to this level of detail.

Keitel has the body language of a street fighter and Skarsgard the arrogance of an artist. The Hungarian director Istvan Szabo (Mephisto, Colonel Redl) seems content to leave it to Harwood and, as a result, the film has a strong anti-American bias.

All is fair in love and war, but this is neither one, nor the other. It is an apt reminder that those who win wars make up the rules.

Reviewed on: 20 Nov 2003
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An American Major interrogates the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1945.
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David Haviland *1/2

Director: Istvan Szabo

Writer: Ronald Harwood, based on the play by Ronald Harwood

Starring: Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard, Moritz Bleibtreu, Birgit Minichmayr, Ulrich Tukur, Oleg Tabakov, Hanns Zischler, Armin Rohde, R. Lee Ermey, August Zirner, Daniel White

Year: 2001

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: UK/France/Germany/Austria


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